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Boston Massacre: Colonists and the Declaratory and Townshend Acts

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  1. 0:06 Declaratory Act
  2. 1:09 Townshend Acts
  3. 3:30 Boston Massacre
  4. 6:25 Dodging the Tea Tax
  5. 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After overturning the hated Stamp Act, Parliament asserted its right to tax the colonists without representation by passing the Declaratory Act. When the Townshend Acts imposed import duties, the colonists went into action again. An escalating cycle of violence ended with the Boston Massacre, resulting in the cancellation of all duties except the one on tea.

The Declaratory Act

In 1764 and 1765, British Parliament, under the direction of Prime Minister George Grenville, had passed a series of new laws and taxes aimed at solving some of Britain's problems following the French and Indian War. Of all the new legislation, colonists hated the Stamp Act most. It was intended to raise revenue for England by requiring that all legal documents and other publications be printed on special paper that had a tax stamp on it. Parliament didn't think about the fact that the people it would hurt the most - like lawyers and publishers - were some of the most influential members of colonial society. They organized a boycott, a congress, and founded the Sons of Liberty to stir up public sentiment against taxation without representation. Parliament did overturn the tax a year later, but not on principle. It just was too much trouble and it wasn't making any money. And at the same time, they passed the Declaratory Act, officially stating that they did indeed have the power to tax the colonists even though they didn't have a representative in Parliament.

The Townshend Acts

Charles Townshend created the Townshend Acts, which placed duties on imported goods
Charles Townshend Duties

A new leader in England bragged that he could get the colonists to pay their fair share of taxes. Charles Townshend devised a plan to avoid direct taxes by placing duties on imported items like paper, tea, glass, lead, and paints. Once again, tax evaders would be tried in the admiralty courts in Canada and the customs agents were granted writs of assistance to search for contraband. To avoid the problem of bribery, Townshend tied the agents' salaries to the money they collected. Furthermore, he disbanded the colonial legislature of New York as punishment for not abiding by the Quartering Act. The Townshend Acts went into effect in 1767.

Once again, Boston merchants organized a boycott. Workers in Boston harbor confiscated items that were headed for other colonial ports, and residents constantly harassed the customs officials. The Massachusetts legislature had Samuel Adams write a letter denouncing taxation without representation and requesting that other colonies take similar measures to avoid the taxes. When Parliament got wind of the letter, they threatened to dissolve the Massachusetts legislature if it didn't immediately withdraw the letter. Of course, they refused. The British government shut down the Massachusetts assembly and warned other colonies that the same thing would happen to them if they continued to avoid paying the Townshend duties. In response, several colonies defiantly endorsed the letter and the actions taken in Massachusetts.

After royal officials seized one of John Hancock's ships - which probably was smuggling goods - a mob formed in the streets and violence against customs agents ensued. England's response was to send a warship to Boston harbor filled with British regulars. For seven years, colonists on the frontier had become accustomed to the sight of redcoats, but now they were part of the scenery in Boston and many capital cities. And this time, they weren't there to protect the colonists from Indians.

To protect tax collectors, England sent a British war ship to Boston Harbor
British Ships Boston Harbor

In many ways, the Townshend Acts marked the beginning of the end of America's colonial relationship with Great Britain. The soldiers were there because the British agents didn't trust the colonists. They were also tasked with making sure that legislatures weren't meeting in any of the rebellious colonies. Not only were they denied representation in Parliament, now they no longer had any recourse through their own elected congresses. Many colonists who had been loyal to the crown began to feel more and more that the king had gone too far.

The Boston Massacre

Since 1767, the Boston customs office had attempted to collect the Townshend duties. Two armed guard were stationed there day and night to protect the building and its employees. Thanks to the efforts of the Sons of Liberty, the customs officials had endured years of harassment. But on March 5, 1770, everything changed.

A Boston teenager started harassing one of the guards, calling him names, stuff like that. Nothing new, right? He left, but came back with some friends who thought it was a good idea to throw snowballs and rocks at an armed, grumpy soldier. Historians don't agree on exactly what happened next, because there are so many different accounts. But it went something like this:

The guard had finally had enough. He stormed after the kid and butted him on the head with his rifle, and a crowd grew. The other guard sent for reinforcements, and nine soldiers showed up to intimidate the crowd and get them to go home. As with just about every royal attempt to control the colonies, this plan backfired. Rather than going home, the crowd grew into a mob of about 400 angry Americans. When the soldiers loaded their weapons, boys in the crowd called their bluff and taunted them, yelling, 'Fire!' Someone clubbed a British soldier named Hugh Montgomery, who fired his musket into the air in frustration. After a brief pause, the soldiers fired into the crowd.

The Boston Massacre fueled opposition against the British government
Boston Massacre Picture

Why did the soldiers fire into the crowd? Some historians believe the soldiers thought Montgomery's warning shot had come from the mob. Other people suggest that the soldiers thought their officer (not boys in the crowd) had told them to fire. Still, others believe the warning shot was a coordinated sign for the soldiers to attack. Of course, many people argue that the soldiers clearly felt threatened by the growing mob and were acting in self-defense. Regardless of the reason, the guards fired into an unarmed crowd of Boston citizens and shot 11 of them. Within two weeks, five of them were dead, including a former slave named Crispus Attucks.

Though both sides were clearly in the wrong that night, the Patriots wasted no time in using this tragedy for propaganda. Samuel Adams called it the Boston Massacre. A silversmith named Paul Revere copied a drawing of the Boston Massacre, adding some inflammatory details. Newspapers throughout all of the colonies reprinted the details and the engraving, generally portraying the British bloodthirsty savages who were murdering innocent people in the streets, burning down houses, raping women and kidnapping children. The Bostonians were, of course, deemed completely innocent.

Dodging the Tea Tax

Following the Boston Massacre, nine soldiers were put on trial for murder. A Boston lawyer named John Adams defended them. Seven were acquitted; two others were found guilty of manslaughter and were sentenced to branding on their thumbs. Parliament hastily retracted all but one of the Townshend Acts - the tax on tea. This was left intact out of principal; Parliament wanted the colonies to know they had the right to tax them.

Colonists generally avoided the tea tax by smuggling in tea from other nations, prompting Britain to increase their offshore fleet of customs ships. When one of them named the Gaspee ran aground near Rhode Island, a mob of colonists rowed out to it and set it on fire. The king vowed to bring the guilty party back to England, but they were never caught.

In light of England's actions over the previous few years, Massachusetts organized a secret group to spread the word about what the British were doing and what the American patriots thought about it. Samuel Adams started the idea to circulate news to the inland towns. Within three years, all of the colonies had these Committees of Correspondence, with an inner circle for communicating with the other twelve colonies.

Lesson Summary

Let's review. After a successful colonial boycott, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but asserted its right to tax the colonies by passing the Declaratory Act. What followed was a downward spiral of mutual offenses. Charles Townshend tried to tax the colonies indirectly through import duties known as the Townshend Acts. But this also led to a boycott and actions by the Sons of Liberty. When Samuel Adams circulated a letter denouncing the new taxes, Britain shut down the Massachusetts assembly as well as the legislatures of any colony that endorsed it. After years of escalating harassment and tension, violence erupted in the Boston Massacre. Parliament repealed all of the Townshend duties except the one on tea, but leaders in Boston quickly used the tragedy to their advantage by stirring up anger throughout all of the colonies. A customs ship named the Gaspee was searching for smuggled tea when it was set fire by colonists. Soon, all of the colonies had set up secret Committees of Correspondence to communicate within and between the colonies.

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